Sagan's Youth and the Progressive Promise of Space
Carl Sagan was captivated by the cosmos from an early age. Reflecting on his youth, he identified a series of experiences that drew him to astronomy and a perspective on the social progress science and technology would bring to the future of humanity.
The stories Sagan told about his childhood offer insight into what he found engaging and powerful about science. Specifically, his experiences with science and science fiction books, and his visit to the 1939 World’s Fair helped shape his vision of science in society. The young Carl Sagan wrote about and illustrated his visions of science, technology and society.
He was an extraordinary individual, but he was also the child of a moment in the history when America’s relationship with science and technology was changing. The items in this essay contextualize him and his ideas in the culture of 1940s and 50s America.
Awestruck by Stars as Suns
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, Sagan asked his parents, friends, and family, "What are the stars?" They weren’t able to give him answers that satisfied his curiosity. He remembered being told things like, "They’re lights in the sky, kid."
On his mother’s suggestion he went to a branch public library and asked for a book about the stars. Apparently the librarian offered him a book about movie stars. After clarifying what he wanted, he was given a children’s book about the stars, quite possibly Secrets of the Stars or something like it.
From the book, Sagan learned that the stars are suns, just very far away. According to Sagan this was a pivotal moment, an almost spiritual experience. The scale of the universe was opened up to him. This experience was so important to him that he presents it as part of the introduction to episode 7 of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. You can read a draft of the script for this section online.
Visiting "The World of Tomorrow" in 1939
Carl Sagan’s parents took him to the 1939 New York City World’s Fair. The fair presented "The World of Tomorrow," a vision of a future America which left a significant impression on the young Sagan.
On the grounds of the fair visitors found a seven-foot tall robot, air conditioners, and a speech synthesizer. The demonstrations of countless wonders showed how technology would help to bring about a better and brighter tomorrow.
This vision of technology and progress became a part of the young Sagan’s passion for science. It also shaped his idealism about the nature of life in the universe. He felt if there were extraterrestrial civilizations out there with even more advanced technology, given the progressive power of technology, they would be even more rational than humanity. Technological progress and the wisdom to make the best use of technology seemed, to many, to go hand in hand at that time.
Looking back on the experience, Sagan noted he had absorbed the "extremely technocratic" ideas of the fair in an "uncritical way." He remembered the presentation of "The World of Tomorrow" as "sleek, clean, streamlined, and as far as I could tell, without a trace of poor people." As Sagan witnessed the development of technology in his lifetime, and the range of persistent superstitions people held on to, he would became much more critical of technology as a force for social progress.
Sagan and the Princess of Mars
Sagan was captivated by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories of John Carter and his exploits on the planet Mars. So much so that on several occasions he tried to recreate John Carter’s journey to the red planet. Carter traveled to Mars by standing in an open field with his arms outstretched and wishing hard enough to transport him there. When Sagan tried it as a child he couldn’t quite get this method to work.
Sagan’s ultimate search for life in the solar system is part of a long story about the possibility of life on other worlds. In the 19th century many scientists and religious thinkers thought it very likely that there was intelligent life on Mars, and these ideas became part of the popular culture that spurred a range of fictional works on what civilizations must be like on Mars. Just as the scientific fact that the stars are suns had captivated a young Sagan, Burroughs tales of battle and struggle on the planet Mars captured his imagination. While science is about fact and rigor for Sagan and many others, it is also about wonder, speculation and imagination.
Imagining the Evolution of Interstellar Space Flight
The young Sagan’s excitement about the power of technology and the likelihood of life on other worlds is on display in a drawing he made, likely between the ages of 10 and 13.
In the Evolution of Interstellar Flight Sagan present’s a vision of the future as a collage of imaginary newspaper headlines from the future. One of the headlines announces the invention of an atomic space ship that can travel 5 miles a second.
In his imagination, the possibilities of space travel were enough to overcome political struggles on Earth. One of his headlines announces an agreement of mutual cooperation between the American and Soviet governments to create the "first moon ship." Another headline celebrates the success of this mission as two Russians and two Americans land on the moon in 1959.
Going forward, the drawing predicts reaching Mars in 1960, and discovering prehistoric looking reptiles on Venus in 1961. The bottom of the drawing presents a 1967 ad for "Interstellar Spacelines", which has identified "Altair 8" as a habitable planet, and invites men and women to sign up to travel to and inhabit this new planet. Idealism for science as a means to conquer social and political problems was a persistent part of his approach into much of his adulthood.
Space, Time and the Poet Sagan
While in high school Sagan had already decided he wanted to become an astronomer. A student spotlight article on him from his high school newspaper opened, "If you wish to gain information concerning anything, go to Carl Sagan. He is Noah Webster, Einstein, and a walking encyclopedia all rolled into one" and that his "ambition is to become a research astronomer." Beyond astronomy, he participated in the senior play, edited the sports section for the student newspaper and served as the president of the French club.
At 14 or 15 years old Carl Sagan wrote a brief essay for his high school student newspaper that illustrated how, at a young age, he was developing the lyrical style that he is so well known for. In "Space, Time and the Poet" he explained, "It is an exhilarating experience to read poetry and observe its correlation with modern science." In the article he comments on selections from the writings of Alfred Lord Tennyson, John Milton, Edgar Allan Poe, T. S. Elliot, Robert Frost and The Bible. After reviewing these poems and their harmony with scientific understanding of the cosmos, he closes by considering the place of humanity in the universe, "After journeying through space over the galactic hub and through time to the terminus of our puny planet, we must be impressed with a feeling of Man’s utter insignificance before the universe."